By Dr. Sampa Kundu and Ms. Arpita Singh
It was November 1962 when the former Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman arrived in Kolkata on his way from London to Kuala Lumpur. Incidentally, this was in the midst of the Indo-Chinese border war and in that context, the prime minister was asked about his opinion on the possible reason behind the invasion. In response, Tunku Abdul Rahman highlighted that India will soon rise against all odds. That was the kind of fondness the former Malaysian prime minister had for India and for its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This incident was later illustrated by Abdul Rahman Jalal, former Malaysian acting High Commissioner in New Delhi who had received PM Tunku Abdul Rahman at the Kolkata airport.
In 1957, India and Malaysia had begun their diplomatic contacts. Years have passed by only to strengthen the bilateral diplomatic engagement between India and Malaysia. Indian Presidents including Dr. Rajendra Prasad visited Kuala Lumpur in 1958, followed by President VV Giri in 1973 and President Fakhrudin Ali Ahmed in 1977. Besides Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru who visited Malaysia in 1954 and 1964, a number of Indian prime ministers paid official visits to Malaysia. The names include Smt. Indira Gandhi in 1968, Shri V P Singh in 1990, Shri P V Narsimha Rao in 1995, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001 and Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2005. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Malaysia to attend and participate in the first East Asia Summit, one of the umbrella security forum for the East Asian region. From the Malaysian side, Dr Mahathir Mohammad, during his first tenure as the Malaysian Prime Minister visited New Delhi multiple times- in 1983 to participate in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit; in 1994 to attend the G-15 meetings and in 1987, 1993, 1996, 2002 respectively for bilateral visits.
The diplomatic engagement between India and Malaysia has been a cordial official relationship so far. In 2018 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Malaysia and had productive exchange of views on various issues with his the then Malaysian counterpart Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement acknowledging Malaysia’s importance as a priority country in New Delhi’s Act East Policy. Malaysia’s membership in ASEAN and all other ASEAN related organisations automatically locates it as an important partner of India, both bilaterally and multilaterally. The bilateral relations between India and Malaysia have grown substantially over the years covering aspects of political, economic, defence and security, tourism, education and many other fields.
The predecessor of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, former Prime Minister Najib Razak admitted the importance of the Malaysian Indians in Malaysia and engaged with the states like Andhra Pradesh Tamil Nadu, Karnataka which are the native homes of the Malaysian Indians. Both the countries have also signed Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement in 2010 and Joint Statement on Enhanced Malaysia-India Strategic Partnership in 2015. By 2017, India became Malaysia’s 10th largest trade partner and 20th largest investment partner. The then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visited India in the same year to commemorate 60th anniversary of India-Malaysia diplomatic engagements. Besides the diaspora factor and economic cooperation, Malaysia’s geostrategic location is another important component of enhanced India-Malaysia relations. Malaysia’s location as a littoral state on the brinks of the Malacca Strait which connects the Bay of Bengal with the South China Sea speaks a lot about Malaysia’s geostrategic significance in India’s Act East Policy as well as New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific approach. Within the broader umbrella of the Indo-Pacific, the India-Malaysia relations are also driven by India’s thrust on multilateralism as both the countries share common platforms in the Non-Aligned Movement, G-15, the Commonwealth, East Asia Summit and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
Inevitably, the defence and security cooperation contribute to the enhancement of India-Malaysia relations, both bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally. The convergence of interests has happened as both New Delhi and Kuala Lumpur desire for peaceful and stable region to ensure growth and development. One needs to look back at the decade of 1990s to trace the beginning of the contemporary India-Malaysian defence and security relations. After the initiation of Look East Policy, India and Malaysia signed a MoU on defence cooperation in the year 1993. This facilitated the establishment of the Malaysia-India Defence Cooperation Meeting (MIDCOM). The recent defence diplomacy between India and Malaysia prioritizes areas like joint military exercises, capacity building of the defence personnel and purchasing of defence equipment- all aiming at achieving defence cooperation and defence economics cooperation. In 2018, India and Malaysia decided to launch Su 30 Forum to exchange information on training, maintenance and technical support on Sukhoi 30 fleets. India also participates at Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA), hosted by Malaysia. In 2019, the Indian Air Force showcased the indigenously developed LCA Fighter Aircraft Tejas and interacted with the Royal Malaysian Airforce. They also participated in many other exhibitions and defence trade shows.
INS Kadmatt, an indigenously-built stealth anti-submarine warfare corvette, also participated in LIMA-19. Malaysia also regularly participates in MILAN, a biennial event hosted by the Indian Navy, conducted in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. To be specific, Malaysia has participated in MILAN in 1997, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2018. On the security aspect, global terrorism, cyber-security, regional security architecture and maritime security are few issues where India and Malaysia are consistently promising to cooperating with each other. East Asia, IORA, ADMM Plus, and Shangri La Dialogue can be cited as examples of such cooperation where New Delhi and Kuala Lumpur have ample opportunities to engage and interact with each other. In 2015, Malaysia hosted the 13th ASEAN-India Summit and 10th East Asia Summit and multiple number of declarations were issued on that occasion including a Declaration on the Global Movement for Moderates, EAS Statement on Countering Violent Extremism, EAS Statement on Enhancing Regional Maritime Cooperation and so on. To strengthen the defence and security cooperation further, both India and Malaysia need to have more synchronization and coordination.
Coming to the flip side, the India-Malaysia cooperation is not free from obstacles and challenges. In December 2019 the Indian industry imposed an unofficial ban on the import of palm oil from Malaysia and few other countries. This was followed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s criticisms over the Citizenship Amendment Act and India’s position on Kashmir. Besides, Malaysia gave asylum to Zakir Naik despite Government of India’s objections as the person in question was alleged for hate speech and money laundering in India.
However, these hiccups can be managed and India and Malaysia have been doing that. Reports from June 2020 indicated that India will buy palm oil from Malaysia. The Malaysian leadership under the new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein has also shown interests in deeper bilateral relations with India.
To conclude, we would like to recommend that both the countries need to have strong coordination between their respective national security offices and plan for well-articulated strategic calculations. For India, the positive side is India’s recognition as a soft and benign power in the region. Several Southeast Asian countries also want a greater Indian role in the region to balance the growing Chinese assertiveness. While all these can work as benefits for New Delhi, issues like trans-national criminal activities might still create a problem for the diplomatic relationship between India and Malaysia. Therefore, India’s stabilizing role as a balancer can prove to be a catalyst for New Delhi’s enhanced partnership with Malaysia to overcome obstacles like terrorism, transnational crimes, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. Both the countries also need to focus on prosperity, democracy and multilateralism to build confidence on each other. This can help India and Malaysia to achieve a high degree of commonality. Finally, to sum it up, one can remember Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Malaysia where it was mentioned that both the sides have the determination to continue the Strategic partnership, deepen the existing areas of cooperation as well as explore additional areas for cooperation.
(The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors)
Dr. Sampa Kundu is currently an Assistant Professor at Amity University, Noida, India and Ms. Arpita Singh is currently a Scholar at Amity University, Noida, India.